Paint It Black, Janet Fitch, Little Brown and Company, 2006, 387 pp
Paint It Black is a very satisfying read. It is a gloomy, sad tale as you might suspect from the title but has an under layer of uplift. White Oleander, Fitch's first novel, had more power but Paint It Black goes deeper. The characters have more complex issues which are revealed gradually, like a developing photograph coming into clarity.
Once again set in Los Angeles, the story of a less-than-privileged young woman learning about love, loss and art and the idiosyncrasies of the rich, has a Raymond Chandleresque sensibility, both because of the clash of class and because a mystery of sorts is solved. Josie Tyrell ran away from poverty and a dysfunctional family in the San Joachim Valley to make her way on the streets of LA. She works as a nude model for art students and as an occasional actress in music videos and indie films. She has found the love of her life, Michael, whose mother is a wealthy concert pianist. But right at the beginning of the book, Michael is found in a cheap motel in the high desert, dead by his own hand.
Josie's life, her happiness and her dream of a perfect love are all shattered, yet her toughness and artistic spirit keep her from drowning (one time literally) in her grief. She does not rest until she solves the mysteries of Michael's life and death.
One of Fitch's strengths is characterization. In Paint It Black, she again creates LA types but each is layered, complex and has a story that illuminates the whole struggle that is life in contemporary times. I was also pleased that since the story takes place in the 1980s, we are spared the technological materialism that characterizes Los Angeles these days.
Michael was a painter and poet, Josie a lover of art and music, Michael's mother and grandfather musicians, making Paint It Black affect the reader like a work of art. Janet Fitch has risen above the curse of the second novel and produced a strong piece of fiction.